By Lindsay Johnstone
‘Falling,’ says Polly Atkin in the opening chapter of Some of Us Just Fall: On Nature and Not Getting Better, ‘was just what we did in our family.’
It was a story she’d long been told. One that sounds innocuous enough. Reassuring, almost. With each incident the young Atkin would be reminded – I’m picturing it said with a kindly smile and a pat on the arm – that she was simply the latest in a long line of fallers.
Such storytelling would serve to explain away an adolescence spent ‘not tripping but collapsing’; ‘smacking’ without warning onto already punished kneecaps. She came to understand only a matter of time stood between her and another unexpected tumble. Recovery became Sisyphean; each protracted period of convalescence tainted by the certainty of another setback.
This old story was one no close relative had thought to probe at with even delicate fingers. For what on earth might make a family of fallers? True enough, to generations past, the concept of identifying and interpreting inheritable mutations in our DNA was unfathomable.
It would take our present-day protagonist – and modern medicine – to tell such an epic tale. One that is not only about falling but about breaking, too. One that unearths the psychological and physical toll it takes being both disbelieved and believing oneself to be broken. One in which only correct diagnosis can allow for the painstaking process of rebuilding the self in a new image to begin.
Like many who live with chronic illness, Atkin’s journey towards understanding her body by connecting this intergenerational story to her own multifarious symptoms would be decades-long. It would see her endure protracted, painful, and often invasive testing.
Appointments with siloed specialists who’d fail to treat the whole person were made more frustrating by what she perceived as those professionals’ scepticism. ‘Illness makes storytellers of us all, but patients know that our version of the story is mistrusted, instinctively and as a matter of course,’ she states with a resignation likely familiar to the chronically-ill. The chronically-ill woman, especially.
Adding further injury to this insult, expertise in one condition seemingly rendered doctors unable to accept her symptoms may have been caused by something else entirely, squandering valuable time.
She addresses these doctors head-on: ‘You will assign another cause to what you observe, thinking you are being logical, working only with what you know to be possible. You have to know something exists in order to find it, right next to you, where it always was. To give it its proper name.’
Atkin was, in many of these doctors’ eyes, ‘fit and well’ having ’passed’ their specific test, regardless of evidence to the contrary. She was by turns, ‘too thin,’ ‘too fat,’ even ‘too sexually active.’
Dismissing what was happening to Atkin served to divert the gaze in a way that would send her spiralling in search of answers, her body further compromised by each wrong turn taken.
A chance encounter with a specialist leads to the first correct diagnosis which she describes as ‘a door opening [. . .] behind it there will be the tools you need to make life manageable, or the chart that tells you where to go next to find what you need, or a whole new world to walk into.’ Sadly, though, she finds the well world (for want of a better term) to be under-prepared, under-resourced and poorly educated in how best to support a person living with chronic illnesses.
And so we ‘loop’ again and again to another world – what Letty McHugh calls ‘the illness place’ – as a means to articulate the chronic illness experience. The reader is swept helter-skelter-like down through the barrier that separates these worlds and Atkin becomes our tour guide as we navigate the otherworld beneath our city-dwelling feet and the labyrinthine caves and passageways of the north of England she has been connected to since childhood, linking the tunnels underground to her hard-to-navigate genetic past whose codes holds secrets from long ago.
Time collapses. We ‘pace’ back and forth to use a term familiar to those who manage a chronic condition, for ‘pacing is chronic. Or do I mean dyschronic? It passes time, moving without moving, but it also stops time, folds time up in place – the same space trod and retrod – the time ticking on but not progressing, like the action of walking that only leads back into itself and not forward or away.’
Atkin later reclaims this term in a way that makes sense for the ways she must manage her symptoms. Pacing not as getting nowhere, but instead a proactive measure to prevent her body coming to a standstill. It takes on an empowering quality: ‘I walk through pain to avoid more pain and I stop walking through pain to avoid more pain. Both of these are pacing. We can only have peace if we stop to listen. Pacing is happiness.’
Her concurrent exploration of space, both real and imagined, allows her to draw further connections between her experiences and that of her ancestors. Between her reality and that of her literary forebears who similarly sought salve by stamping themselves and their words into the landscape.
An academic’s impulse leads her to an appraisal of other literary attempts to define and articulate the ill self in relation to this ‘whole new world,’ post-diagnosis. Criticise, too, the many ways in which the nature cure has been touted – with increasing frequency post-COVID – as an efficacious alternative treatment for all manner of conditions.
The passages that depict the experience of that over-stretched academic, brought once more to her knees by the unmanageable demands of a cross-border lecturing post, are a timely condemnation of academia and the many ways it fails those with chronic conditions.
Before the veil is lifted and ‘the nature cure’ debunked, Atkin relocates to the Lake District to walk in the footsteps of Wordsworth and swim in the waters she has been led to believe will heal her. She learns about topophilia; a ‘love-at-first-sight’ theory of place coined by humanist geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, and leaves the city behind. ‘I knew nothing about Grasmere, about what it would mean to live there, but I knew I wanted it more than anything. I knew it would change my life.’
And while that prediction may well be in part true, she nevertheless becomes distraught when she continues to experience poor health. ‘I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working any more, why I was getting sicker and sicker, despite the mountains, the water, the trees. Even after all those years, all that sickness work experience, I still fell for the oldest line. I still fell for the impossible pill.’
Despite this, Atkin continues to be drawn to the lakes. Knows that there is something in the experience of being in water that does provide salve, however painful. ‘If I could, I would live in the water. To be a body in water, not a body on land. A body that can’t fall over. Accepting the cold is a part of my negotiation with the lake. I grit my teeth and breathe into it, and the lake keeps its side of the bargain, releases me from the weight of my own body for as long as I can stay in it. It bears me, if I can bear it.’
Essentially, this is a book about bearing the unbearable. A book about acceptance. Leaning into an experience of this world though a sick body by understanding cognitively and physically that neither diagnosis nor time in nature are curative.
In fact, to be cured, she asserts, may be read as a means of erasure. One that Atkin resists. ‘The things that make me sick are genetic – written in and by the smallest parts of me, at the centre of my every cell, part of my diverse internal landscape – so how can any cure that wants to dig them out of me be natural? [. . .] Cure wants to undo me. To unmake me, in the name of ‘healing’ [. . .] In the name of natural and normal and well. The dark side of cure is eradication. Cure wants to remove, to erase difference. Cure wants people like me to not be people like me.’
At the in-person events promoting this book, Atkin wears a mask – and requests the same of those attending – so that she can be that uncured self in the well world. To tell her story in its necessary fullness. Let’s not forget that a year ago, this would have still been the norm. Our collective memory – unlike our genetic one – is short. Atkin, though, nudges us. Reminds us with piercing eyes atop a jade-coloured mask that visibility is vital when so many chronic illnesses lurk, unseen and undiscovered just beneath the surface.
About our contributor
Lindsay Johnstone [she/her] is a writer based in Glasgow. Her roots are firmly in the west coast, though she has been known to travel when the occasion calls. She writes about motherhood, the impact of intergenerational trauma and the interplay between the natural world and our mental health. Lindsay was the recipient of a John Byrne Award in June 2023, was shortlisted for a Writers’ Award at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival in 2022 and was supported by Creative Scotland and ASLA’s emerging writers’ programme, Our Voices, in 2021.
In her former life as a high school English teacher, Lindsay wrote for the Herald and BBC Bitesize. She is a regular voice on BBC Radio Scotland, and can (mostly) be trusted with a microphone. She works at the Scottish Book Trust and moonlights as one fifth of Glasgow band, Wall Sun Sun.
Her memoir, Held in Mind, is currently on submission with UK publishers while she works on her first novel. She also writes a Substack where readers can expect some of the above and more besides: lindsayjohnstone.substack.com